Inside the 50-bed shelter for migrants run by the Norwegian Red Cross in Oslo, a tall, middle-aged man named Fernando, originally from the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, beds down for the night. He’s just arrived from Spain, where he did construction jobs while his wife, a medical doctor, worked at a local hospital.
When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, his wife lost her job and construction work dried up, he says. Finally, this year, he decided to leave Spain for Norway.
“There is no work in Spain,” he says, alternating between Spanish, Portuguese and French. “I’m looking for work but I’ve heard it’s very hard here. And I don’t speak Norwegian at all.”
Fernando, who did not want to give his last name, is among a growing subset of the migrant population here — those who have lived in Greece, Italy, Portugal or Spain — but have ventured on as life in those countries became increasingly difficult.
Arriving in Norway, many find that their prospects are not much better. Without knowing the language and without official residency, and the national identification number that goes along with it, finding a job is extremely difficult.
Also among those at the shelter are people fleeing conflict or persecution and who may claim asylum. Many others have legal residency in one of the 26 European countries that are part of the Schengen Convention, which means they can enter and stay in Norway legally but their access to public services and the job market is restricted.
Such is the paradox for many who come to Norway, a country known for having a generous posture towards both international humanitarian and human rights issues and the social welfare of its citizens.
“The Norwegian welfare society is very good,” says Ulf Rikter-Svendsen, head of the Norwegian Red Cross’s social inclusion programmes. “If you are not working or are sick, you are entitled to all services and benefits provided by the local municipality. But if you are not part of the welfare system because you are an undocumented migrant, the landscape is very different.”
Because Norway’s economy is highly regulated, everything from basic healthcare to filling a prescription, renting an apartment, opening a bank account, getting a driver’s licence and even getting membership at a gym is dependent on having a valid national identity number.
The strong economy, meanwhile, fuelled by revenues from national petroleum reserves, has afforded Norwegians a high standard of life. But it also contributes to high prices for basic goods.
Many migrants, therefore, find themselves living in a parallel world: sleeping in the streets or on trams, trains, buses and ferries, or staying in an overnight shelter as they look for work or a place to live.
Over the last decade, as migration has increased, the Norwegian Red Cross has increasingly offered services for vulnerable people falling through the cracks of an otherwise affluent society.
Along with a well-known local charity, the Church City Mission, the National Society has opened two overnight shelters in Oslo, one for men and another 50-bed shelter for women, and it offers a wide range of programmes to help migrants and refugees cope. In 2009, for example, it opened a health clinic specifically for migrants and asylum seekers.
Today, that clinic is a multi-disciplinary health centre run with help from 150 volunteers, including medical doctors, nurses, specialists, psychologists, physical therapists, biological technicians, social workers, interpreters and greeters who welcome people in the waiting room.
The Norwegian health system offers medical services to undocumented migrant children and to adults for urgent problems that are deemed acute. One problem, however, is that migrants don’t always know when they go to the hospital whether or not their illness will be considered acute or how much they might be billed.
Further, many undocumented migrants are afraid to go to the hospital for fear of being detected. “Everywhere you go, they say, ‘you are illegal, you are illegal’,” says Yeshi, a woman from Ethopia who has lived in Norway for eight years and is currently appealing her so-far unsuccessful asylum claim. “I do not have basic shelter and to eat I have to beg; to sleep I have to beg. These are the difficult things we are facing.”
Because of the stresses many migrants and asylum seekers face, the Red Cross health centre seeks to offer refugees a welcoming environment and it assures clients strict confidentiality. “Anytime I come here I feel whole and I have received good help,” says Yeshi, who herself has become a volunteer and prepares dinner for healthcare workers every Tuesday evening.
Making people such as Yeshi feel comfortable is important, says Merethe Taksdal, a nurse who helped found the centre and who volunteers there at least once a month. “The problem is that people don’t go to get help until they have serious problems, while you have a lot to gain by helping them early,” she says.
Many of the ailments she sees among clients are stress related, she says. “They suffer from sleeplessness. They are worried. For these young Afghan and Iraqi boys, for example, there are so many expectations from home and they themselves had such high hopes — that they would come here learn something, gain a skill, be a resource for family. And then they find themselves in some sort of limbo.”
Many come to the clinic because they work long hours in unregulated businesses, using toxic cleaning chemicals without proper protection or lifting heavy weights, while their sleep and nutrition are inadequate.
“Some of the health problems are also related to the unstable and bad living conditions,” says Linnea Nasholm, a social worker who coordinates mental health services at the centre. “Still others have skin-related problems because they are sharing an apartment with 15 people and have limited access to good hygiene.”
A soft-spoken man in his late 20s, an asylum seeker named James first came to the health clinic in 2009 due to back pain he developed working in a fish packing factory in northern Norway. After fleeing from Jonglei, then part of Sudan, for the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 2005, he says he came to Norway where he was told he’d have a better chance of gaining official refugee recognition.
“It was so different,” he recalls. “It was so cold and there were just one or two hours of light a day. In Africa, it was always 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.”
Then he started developing back problems. “I didn’t know how to lift heavy things properly so I had a lot of back pains,” says James, who had made his way to Oslo in search of other work. “Then I got to know about this clinic and they helped me. It’s still a problem but not as bad as before.”
Now James, like many asylum seekers here, is turning to the health centre for another kind of support — help with a depression that has settled in due to his uncertain future. James says he is appealing a second rejection of his asylum claim but one of the problems is that he doesn’t have any identification or other papers to prove he is from South Sudan, an independent country since 2011. “At this point, I want to go home but I can’t because I don’t have the proper identification for South Sudanese authorities.”
Meanwhile, in Norway, he cannot open a bank account, go to school, get a job or rent an apartment. “I live just for the day because I cannot plan anything and I don’t know where I will be tomorrow,” says James, who stays with friends or sleeps outside and volunteers at a local church to stay busy. “I am losing hope,” he says.
This kind of depression is common among refugees, Nasholm says. “It’s very normal to react the way they do,” she says. “They are worried and many also feel they are a burden for their network of family and friends. They are always depending on others and constantly have to move from one place to another.”
“So we do a lot of support talks,” says Nasholm, adding that for more serious symptoms, the centre makes referrals to government-supported local psychologists. But the system that offers psychological and psychiatric help accepts very few patients — either because of the patient’s legal status or because the patients are living in situations too unstable for therapy to be effective.
Even for those who are granted residency as refugees, integration in Norway is not necessarily easy. Here, refugees granted asylum are assigned to live in specific municipalities in various parts of Norway. Until then, they wait in temporary facilities, usually between 9 and 12 months, called reception centres.
The Norwegian Red Cross offers services and activities at many of the reception centres and they continue reaching out in various ways to refugees once they are settled in to their new communities. Language training, for example, is offered in most Red Cross branches, while volunteer ‘refugee guides’ are paired with individual refugees for weekly sessions in which they can talk, practise speaking Norwegian and discuss the country’s institutions, culture and daily life.
Kaysa Amundsen, a volunteer and refugee guide based in Bergen, in western Norway, says volunteers often develop into lasting friendships. In Bergen, they even have a refugee and refugee-guide hiking group. “One weekend every year, we hike the Galdhøpiggen, the highest peak in Norway,” says Amundsen. “The trip is free but the migrants need to come for training sessions.”
Why hiking? “It’s a pleasant, natural way to get to know one another,” she says. “And generally, Norwegian people like to trek so it helps the refugees fit in. We joke that you can use diplomas to apply for a job and that’s ok, but once you tell them you’ve been on Galdhøpiggen, they will hire you.”
The National Society also offers some services specifically for women, who face special difficulties in their adopted country. One of those services is the Stella Café, a resource centre for women trying to enter the job market. Some 170 volunteers offer roughly 90 hours of activities each week, from yoga and English lessons to one-on-one coaching sessions. Complete with a small coffee bar, the café brings together about 40 women each day from places as far afield as Iraq, Poland, Russia, Somalia and Ukraine, among other places.
Many of these women were highly educated professionals in their countries of origin. Here in Oslo they are starting from scratch. Many have lost some of their self-esteem in the transition to a new culture and economy, says café coordinator Marianne Bockelie, adding that one of the goals here is to help boost the women’s confidence. “In the labour market today, if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will,” she says.
While refugees face big challenges integrating into Norwegian life and the country’s migration policy is a controversial topic, Norwegians have shown considerable solidarity with their new neighbours. A newspaper poll in early August, for example, found that 57 per cent of Norwegians had a favourable view towards migrants and refugees. This may have something to do with the general Norwegian attitude. Known for their adventurous spirit, many are very curious about people from other cultures who come to their country.
One difficulty, however, is that under the Norwegian system, municipalities bear the cost of local social welfare needs. Local officials and residents, therefore, are often concerned about whether their communities can afford to welcome more refugees. In addition to helping refugees cope in this environment, one goal of the National Society is to encourage a welcoming attitude through public awareness campaigns and advocacy on the national migration and asylum policy.
Indeed that welcoming attitude is an integral part of the humanitarian response to migration and it animates many of the volunteers working on services for migrants and refugees.
Back at the overnight shelter, one volunteer points to her broad smile when asked what she feels is her most important contribution to the migrants here. “It’s contagious, this smile,” she says, her grin widening. “I smile and then they smile. It’s very important. You bring positive energy. They go through so much every day so to get something positive in their life makes a big difference.”
Another volunteer at the shelter, Thomas Moxnes-Andexer, responds to a different question. What’s the most challenging part of working here? “When we don’t have enough spaces for everyone who needs a bed. At the old shelter when we had 100 beds and 180 people in line and we had to reject 80 people in one night. That was the worst evening we had, in March 2014. It was really cold outside, too.”
Anne Anderson, the coordinator of the shelter, is asked what is the most satisfying part of her work. “Those times when the number of people who come match the number of beds and everyone gets to stay. It’s like ‘yes’!”
Given the growing needs and the limited number of beds, how often does that happen? “Not that often,” she responds.